Food Intolerance or Something Else?

No one should have to put up with continual gut discomfort. However the reality is that, 30% of people globally suffer with gut symptoms that effects their everyday life. Different factors can cause gut symptoms; however, many are quick to associate these symptoms with eating and specific food intolerances without considering alternative factors.

If you are experiencing digestive symptoms, it is important to talk to your GP to rule out any medical causes first.

Adverse Food Reactions

Adverse food reactions can be divided into three main categories: food allergies, food insensitivities and food intolerances.

Food allergies are where the body’s immune defence system is triggered by mistaking specific food proteins as dangerous. Symptoms commonly include skin rashes, accelerated heart rate, difficulties breathing, and can be fatal. Although coeliac disease also involves the immune system, it is not a food allergy; it is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune defence system attacks the intestines when gluten is consumed. 

Food intolerances are non-immune reactions, are not life-threatening and have less severe symptoms than food allergies. These reactions occur when a person is lacking a digestive enzyme (e.g. lactose intolerance) or nutrients needed to break down foods. 

Common trigger foods and ingredients include dairy products, sulphites, histamines, lectins, preservatives, artificial colours, fillers, flavourings, chocolate, citrus fruits, and acidic foods. 

Food intolerances are more common and symptoms can negatively impact the quality of life. Gut symptoms are the most common symptoms of food intolerances.

Food sensitivities can cause reactions that are delayed by hours or even days. These food reactions are usually caused by an imbalance in the gastrointestinal system that is affecting the immune system. An example of this is leaky gut or intestinal permeability. A range of symptoms can be experienced which may include gut symptoms but also headaches, mood swings, depression, muscle or joint pain, fatigue and more.

Common sources of food sensitivities are cow’s milk (and dairy products), eggs, gluten (from wheat, rye, spelt, and barley), soy, shellfish, and tree nuts. 

Diagnosing food intolerances

There are functional tests available that assess antibodies to different foods; IgE for allergies and IgG for food insensitivities. But an easier way to diagnose a food intolerance is by an exclusion diet. This involves restriction of the potential culprit food element to see if symptoms are resolved, followed by reintroduction of the food element to see whether symptoms come back.

There is also the “nocebo effect”, where we convince ourselves that a certain food is causing gut symptoms and self-diagnose a food intolerance. This can result in the brain sending signals to the gut, causing the gut symptoms when the culprit food is eaten, even though no actual food intolerance is present. This can lead to unnecessarily restriction of food groups from the diet. 

However, allergies and intolerances are not the only cause of gut symptoms.

Other common digestive conditions

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Acid Reflux / GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease)
  • Bloating & Excessive Gas
  • Constipation or Diarrhoea 
  • Stomach Ulcers

It’s important to seek advice from a health professional before self-diagnosing a food allergy or intolerance. There are many possible factors that, if diagnosed and managed correctly, will significantly improve quality of life.

How can we help

If you are experiencing gut discomfort, you don’t need to simply put up with the symptoms. 

Our expert team of nutritional therapists and clinical dieticians address your lifestyle and dietary factors alongside a stool profile assessment that provides an indication of gastrointestinal health and gut microbial imbalances. Together, we use these to structure a personalised plan to optimise digestive functioning, repair underlying imbalances and address food intolerances to optimise health and quality of life.